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Skin-deep mission: how Western missionaries are perceived.

Ex-CMS missionary Greg Anderson is now bishop of the Northern Territory. In this, the first of six articles on humility in mission, he writes about the difference that skin colour makes to mission, and how to deal with that difference as a Christian and as a missionary.

Article One is Skin-deep mission: how Western missionaries are perceived.

Article Two is  The Money Factor: Relatively Rich Mission Agents.

Article Three  is The Politeness Factor: Relatively Rude Mission Agents.

Article Four is The Lifestyle Factor: Relatively Free Mission Agents.

Article Five is The Diversity Factor: Relating to a Range of People.

The sixth and final article will appear in March 2020.

One of the obvious things about my ministry in the Northern Territory is that my skin colour is the same as that of a lot of people, and my skin colour is different from that of many others. That’s an evident fact, but as I thought about and wrote that first sentence, I felt rather uncomfortable. I have been trained over many decades to believe/know that skin colour doesn’t make any difference. To even mention skin colour (and I am aware that I am writing this article close in time to a mass murder in Texas that apparently was related to white supremacy) is shameful. It might imply that skin colour is ‘a thing’.

And yet in some parts of the world, including where CMS people are sent, skin colour is a thing. I believe we need to be aware of this and think through it. What I am going to say has a connection with the philosophy of ‘vulnerable mission’ (see for example, http://www.vulnerablemission.org and http://www.jim-mission.org.uk), although it is not quite the same. Vulnerable mission strongly advocates for use of the local language in ministry, as CMS does. It also advocates for use of local resources (particularly financial) rather than risk creating dependency on rich providers from elsewhere.[1] It recognises the danger to genuine evangelism and discipling of the resource disparity between visitors and locals. It is more nuanced than just worrying that people might become ‘rice Christians’, but wants to be sure that outsider resourcing is not confusing the cause of the gospel. An international conference on vulnerable mission in December 2019 is publicising as its strapline/tagline: Should the majority world be the target of patronage from rich missionaries?

When skin colour matters

The skin colour thing is a precursor to the vulnerable mission advocacy. It is about understanding how we as missionaries are viewed, particularly in places that are relatively less resourced than outsider missionaries. Of course it is not really literally about skin colour, although people’s first impressions of us may actually flow from our visual appearance. There are particular dynamics about, for example, Australian-born Chinese missionaries in south-east Asia, because of assumptions, (which may be untrue) about their knowledge of language and culture. Most white-skinned missionaries are from the West, as many non-white-skinned missionaries are also.

The West continues to hold enormous prestige, power and wealth in the world, and Western missionaries are likely to be seen as representing and embodying that, whether or not they as individuals match up with those characteristics. I remember speaking to a Western missionary working (for a less generous stipend than CMS-A people) in South Asia, who felt he was perceived as a ‘walking wallet’ by everybody around him. He understood why this was the case, but for him it was ironic because in his own terms, he was relatively poor.

What skin colour means in the Northern Territory

In our ministry team working with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, we have been thinking a lot about patronage and client-patron relationships. The unwelcome reality is that whitefellas in this environment will almost inevitably be seen as patrons. Regardless of our intentions or ability to represent vulnerable mission, the history of contact here has already painted us very clearly. Unless and until we can prove that we are vulnerable—and we might ask what would provide enough proof—we will be seen as powerful, rich and having prestige. Patronage is just one lens for interpreting and dealing with Western privilege; in other cases, Westernness might be reacted against with suspicion, hostility or violence. But let us pursue thinking about patronage.

Part of the challenge for people like me is believing that this is how people see me. If I don’t see myself like this, it is hard to imagine that other people do; but because of my Westernness and my relative power, people may be reluctant to reveal how they see me.  I will have to find other ways of finding out. This might include seeing how other Westerners are treated or spoken about personally or in the media, or developing enough trust with a local (which takes a lot of time) to have some confidence that I am hearing the truth from him/her. It is not so much ‘checking my privilege’, in the sense of leaving it at the cloakroom (as though I can just pretend that I don’t have it), as ‘checking out my privilege’: finding out how other people see or experience the advantages I have. In many parts of the world, however poor or underprivileged I may be relative to my home country, I am still not poor or underprivileged in my new location.

Dealing with privilege as a Christian and a missionary

If people habitually treat me as though I am their patron and they are my clients, this raises the question of how to deal with this as Christians and missionaries. If I am uncomfortable with being a patron, I am likely to deny that I am, or seek to contradict the impression of patronage by acting in certain ways. The problem is that if all the other people who look like me are in fact patrons, it will take a lot of work for me to convince others that I am not. One possible remedy is to bring out explicitly the issue of patronage and talk with local Christians about it. Is it seen as a good or bad thing? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How do they see it displayed in the Bible? Is patronage only ever in one direction, or are there ways that it can be reciprocated? And if I am to be a patron, are there good local models that I can follow, at least until there are more opportunities to display vulnerability.

It is always the case that being aware of how we are seen, including how we are literally seen because of our skin colour, and working through that, will be helpful for good relationship-building in the long run.

[1] For transparency, I make the disclosure here that the ministry of the Anglican Church in the Northern Territory benefits enormously from external resourcing, in the provision of both people (including those supplied by CMS) and money. With perhaps 650 people in church across the whole diocese on an average Sunday (in a total Territory population of <1% of Australia’s population), we are frankly happy to have that outside support.